25 years ago a movie exploded on to New Zealand theatre screens. Audiences were shaken, stirred, angered, horrified at what they had just seen. A – within its R-16 censorship rating – cold hard look at something New Zealand had been sweeping under the rug: the dreadful toll of domestic violence on our communities, our families/whanau and ourselves. Once Were Warriors, based on the book of the same name by Alan Duff, shone a light onto things and into places in New Zealand society that people did not want to talk about. 25 years later, what has changed?
To understand the problem we should look at the movie itself, first. It centres around a dysfunctional Maori family whose male head is hopelessly lost – not so much wilfully but perhaps having never known any other way. Handsome, muscular but dangerously prone to violence, which is all too frequently inflicted on his wife, his sons and daughter. Slowly Beth Heke is realising that Jake is too dangerous for her and her family and they need to get out, but not before his eldest son Nig becomes a patched gang member and daughter Grace is raped by an uncle. She commits suicide. One day Beth finds her diary and starts reading through it, then she happens on a page where Grace mentions being raped. The movie ends with Beth and Nig confronting Jake in a pub with his drinking mates including Uncle Bully.
25 years later some things have changed for the better, but all who are working towards ending domestic violence and the effects it has on society know there is a long long way to go. Sexual violence, addiction and domestic violence have not changed much. Whereas then it was almost taboo to grumble about sexual violence, it is becoming more acceptable to make a stand, but not without the real risk of being ostracized by supposed friends and family. Whereas alcohol was probably the substance of addiction in 1994, it is more likely now to be methamphetamine or synthetic cannabis.
In 1994 many people would say “harden up” or “get a divorce, Ma’am”, movements such as White Ribbon Day have brought an annual focus with Defence Force and emergency service personnel turning out. Law changes on the books now make strangulation an offence and police have better training and resources for dealing with such violence. Calls for people who have suffered domestic violence to be allowed time off work to get their lives in order are also happening. Most recently recognizing that pets may be the subject of abuse when victims have walked away from dangerous situations, a pet refuge programme has been established to take pets that cannot be taken by families fleeing.
But unless we address how men come to be bullies, dysfunctional people who only know violence, we will not address the causes of domestic violence in full. Unless we look at the broken homes, the lack of male role models and support for those who have learned right from wrong there will still be the Jake Heke’s who know no other way; the Beth Heke’s who find themselves trapped by powerful figure, but know they need to leave. Tragically there will also be the Grace Heke’s who find themselves propping up the sexual violence statistics and the Nig’s who join a gang. We can avoid this, and 25 years later one would have hoped that significant progress would have been made at the least. But all of the statistics suggest that there is a long way to go before Rena Owen can say that her character Beth Heke has done her job.